I KNOW NOTHING

HOGAN’S HEROES was a weekly prime sitcom consisting of 168 episodes running from 1965 until 1971. Set in a German POW camp, it’s humor revolved around an inventive group of Allied POW’s outwitting the inept group of German overseers. It scripts and cast continue to amuse us even today on cable.

This reblog is from 2014. While it doesn’t deal with the TV show directly, it hits on my experience of the show’s acceptance on 2 former POWs and also a time Leonard Nimoy asked a question..,and was sorry he did..

One reason for the reblog is the excellent work being done by John Holton in his blog The Sound of One Hand Clapping. After a post on the Allied characters/actors, and another on the German characters/actors, John is writing a complete synopsis of each of the 168 episodes. Fine, entertaining writing, whether or not you are familiar with the show or not.

https://thesoundofonehandtyping.com/hogans-heroes-episode-index/

-Schultz-hogans-heroes-I Know Nooothing

On Memorial day weekend (2014) I read an angry letter posted on the web. The writer, a young (?) Politically Correct activist was railing out against the fact the old TV comedy, HOGAN’S HEROES, was still being shown on cable TV. She felt it was a great disservice to all those who were POW’s of the Germans in WWII. She wanted the series to be hidden away like the old AMOS & ANDY SHOW. In a way I could see her point; but… (It was the first TV show where Black actors had main roles along with the White actors.)

Two of my favorite coworkers at the Guthrie Theatre spent a large part of WWII as prisoners of war in German camps. Chuck Wallen, an American, was a stagehand and set carpenter at the Guthrie. Michael Langham, an Englishman, was the Artistic Director of the theatre. They were in different camps but they both had similar experiences during their years as prisoners.

Chuck, an Air Corps navigator, was on his first bombing run when the plane was shot down. He parachuted out, landed in a cow pasture and broke his back. A village doctor set Chuck’s back as best he could, but the setting would have left Chuck unable to ever stand straight again. A German doctor, seeing the problem, fought red tape and got Chuck to a hospital where the doctor rebroke the back and set it correctly. Chuck spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany, but at least he could stand straight.

Growing up, Michael Langham’s hero was the Duke of Wellington. Because of this, Michael  went to Officers’ Training School where he received an officer’s commission just in time to take part in the final days of the Battle of Dunkirk, namely the retreat to the beach. When the Miracle of Dunkirk was accomplished, Michael was not one of the lucky ones that were transported back to England. He was in the group that missed the boats and were captured by the Germans and placed in a POW camp, where he spent the duration of the war that he really never got to know first hand.

It was the camp where the Great Escape took place, although the tunnel was in a different barracks and Michael was not involved or even aware of what was going on. To kill time in the camp, Michael joined the theatrical group. Sometimes Michael acted, sometimes Michael directed. By the time the camp was liberated, Michael no longer thought of himself as the next Duke of Wellington. Instead, he pursued a career in the theatre, substituting Tyrone Guthrie for the Duke of Wellington as a role model.

It was the years of HOGAN’S HEROES in prime time. The day after each new episode aired, Michael would make his way down to the shop where he and Chuck would spend about a half hour or so going over the episode, laughing and comparing characters on both sides of camp to people in their camps. Since I was working the show the nights the series aired I never got to see it until years later in reruns. Sometimes though when I was working during a day when Chuck and Michael got together, I was privileged to listen to those two reminisce.

So, now when I find myself laughing at the antics of Hogan and the gang, I don’t feel any guilt. After all, two members of the Greatest Generation, who had first hand experience in POW camps laughed at the same antics many years ago.

On the other hand, another favorite acquaintance, Jim Daly, who survived the Bataan Death March and the ensuing years in a POW camp in the Philippines, would not have found anything funny during his hell on earth.

  

We doing a week of VINCENT in Scottsdale, Arizona about nine months after Bob Crane, Hogan of HOGAN’S HEROES, was murdered in this posh city of many rich retirees. Mr. ‘Just Call Me Bob’ Herberger, founder of the Herberger’s department store chain put on a big fete for us at his house. He had enjoyed the play and especially liked the fact that it came from the Guthrie in his home state of Minnesota. I think he spent more time talking with another Minnesota native, namely me, as he did hobnobbing with Leonard Nimoy, the star of VINCENT. It was a fun time with only one slight bump in the road.

Almost all of Mr. Herberger’s invitees were, like him, enjoying their retirement in the land of the sun. There wasn’t a Ford or a Chevy mixed in with the Rolls and Caddies, and although the it was Arizona casual dress, it wasn’t the casual dress wear that came off the rack at a Herberger’s Department Store.

There was one group of men that seemed to hang together. They looked like they could have been extras in THE GODFATHER. Maybe one of them brought the cannoli to the party. A couple of them were more interested in talking to Leonard about Dr. (sic) Spock than about Van Gogh, something that always irritated Leonard; but he remained a gentleman and answered their questions about Spock and STAR TREK as the old timers wanted.

Then Leonard asked them a question. ‘You know, Bob Crane and I use to be friends back in the days we were auditioning for jobs, and then when we both were in hit shows. Hadn’t seen him years though. Now,’ Leonard said in a quiet voice, ‘What’s the real skinny on Crane’s murder?’

You don’t yell fire in a theater, and you don’t ask these old men about murder. Their silence was deafening. They didn’t have to talk. They just gave Nimoy  – the look. Finally one of them spoke up in a raspy whisper. ‘Don’t ask about that guy again around here. You don’t want to know! Understand?’ Leonard nodded and the subject was dropped. He smiled at the group of men and left to get a refill on his Beefeater’s martini.

In the words of Sergeant Schultz, ‘I know nothing.

COFFEE WITH ALI

This is a reblog of a post I did June/8/2014, right after Muhammad Ali died.

It recalls an isle of calm for me in the sea of fire. Civil Rights Protests. Anti-Vietnam Protests. Looting, destruction, and shouts of blame from both side of the political aisle.

When this incident took place, we had Hope. We knew that once things calmed down the Civil Rights would take hold in fact not just word. And we knew that we would never go to a War again unless it was really needed, and we would never allow the War to last very long.

But like the song says: ‘We were young and foolish.’

I need an isle of calm today so I brought it out and read it. So topical! Topical in that it follows my Dalton Trumbo posts regarding a man standing up for his beliefs, only to be persecuted by politicians whose only belief is pandering to the lowest common denominator. So topical! I wish today’s violent ‘protesters’ could hear the words of Muhammad Ali, a man known for his violent art, speak with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, a man known for his non-violent speech.

There was this old bulll standing in the middle of the railroad track and far away the train was comng fast. But that old bull just stood there and the people all admired the old brave bull. And the train blew a warning…anotherand another as it came full steam head on. And the people oohed and aahed because that old bull never flinched. Just stood his ground…And…

And all those people that oohed and aahed when the brave bull was standing tall in the center of the tracks, just looked around at what was left of him scattered in little pieces for a good miles, yup, all those people who called that bull brave a short time before changed their tune.

Boy, was that bull ever stupid,” they said, and walked away.’

Thus spoke Muhammad Ali talking about Violent Protesting.

Today I have Hope. I believe that when the stupidity of the politicians is removed from the equation, the genius of our medical scientists will find a cure and a vaccine for the Virus. As far as the Civil Rights issue is concerned…Hatred and genocide are embedded deep in the history of this country.

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.

MEMORIES FORGOTTEN AND REMEMEBERED

dick-van-dyke-show

 

 

 

            There comes a time when it is easier to remember what happened years ago than to remember where in the heck you just set down your glasses or your car keys, or you call your grandchildren by the wrong name.

            Joey B. was at that age years before he should have been; but then, his memory failed him even the middle of a story,especially where names were concerned. When he couldn’t think of a name, he would start scratching the top of his head ala Stan Laurel. I found out just recently that Joey B and his memory was responsible for me thinking that Dick Van Dyke was kind of standoffish.

            Van Dyke was playing the lead in a touring company of THE MUSIC MAN. He got to the theater early for the first sound check and went downstairs to the stagehands’ room to introduce himself the hands. I was busy on stage so I wasn’t in the room at the time.

             Dick introduced himself and wanted to learn the names of the hands. As was his custom, Joey B. broke in and started his own conversation with Van Dyke.

            ‘Hey, I remember you. You had that show on TV. The one with that funny guy and that funny woman — always cracking jokes. And you had a wife that was pretty funny too. Can’t think of the name of that show though.’ He began to scratch the top of his head.

            Van Dyke tried to help him out. ‘It was called THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.’

            ‘NO! NO! Joey B. said in his best gruff voice. ‘That ain’t it.’ Now really stumped, he took off his glasses with his right hand and rubbed his eye. ‘I’ll remember it. I’ll remember.’

            At which point, Van Dyke threw up his arms, turned around and went back upstairs. Naturally, the hands that were present burst out laughing. Dick spent a lot of time in his dressing room during the run and seemed to avoid the stagehands. I can’t blame him after hearing the story of his meeting with Joey B. and his memory, and all these years I thought he was stuck up.  

 

Recently, the Bulletin Board had a lot of stories about people trying to think of the first thing they remembered. Here’s my story.       

How far back?

The Old Hand of Oakdale: “I guess my earliest memory was that of a corpse and a casket. In my mind, I still have a vivid picture of trying to reach up to grab the edge of the casket so I could pull myself into it. What led up to it and what occurred after was told to me by my mother years later.

“I was about 2, the only grandchild at the time — old enough to walk and talk, young enough so I couldn’t understand the concept of death. My favorite uncle, Gilbert, and the youngest in my mother’s family, was just 16 when he died of Sleeping Sickness.

“It was back in the day when wakes were often held in the home of the deceased. Gilbert was laid out in an open casket in his parents’ living room for three days and nights: three days of people paying their respects, bringing food and beverages, sitting around playing cards and talking to old friends and relatives, which on my mother’s side pretty much consisted of everyone in Mendota — both the village and the township and some of Eagan Town. The wake ended each night when the parish priest led the rosary. The visitors left, but most came back the next day.

“Mom and I stayed at her folks’ house during that time. I slept in a bed with my mother. Dad was coming in for the funeral from Lake Michigan, where he was working on the ice pack. On the first night, I managed to sneak out of the bed and go downstairs to where Uncle Gibby was ‘sleeping.’ Luckily, my mother noticed that I wasn’t in the bed and found me before I caused any trouble or somehow managed to achieve my goal.

“In spite of my mother trying to speak quietly and explain why I had to sleep with her and not Uncle Gibby, I did manage to wake everybody up with my loud screams demanding to sleep with Uncle Gibby.

“My earliest memory.”

Published in Bulletin Board  11/4/16

And that’s a wrap for today.

Oh, just found my glasses. They were on top of my head. Should have looked there first.

 

BREAK A LEG

break-a-leg

BREAK A LEG

 

Vaudeville always seemed ancient history to me, although it died only a few years before I was born. When I started working in show business in my mid twenties it was kind of a surprise when I realized many of the old time stagehands I was working with actually got their start in vaudeville.

I learned a lot from those old timers. Learned tricks of the trade, like how to duck out of work so the young guys would have to do it. And I loved listening to their stories.

 

One of my favorite old timer was Eddie Ryan. He was one of the nicest guys I ever worked with, and he was also one of the most inept stagehands I ever worked with.

Eddie Ryan never worked as a stagehand in vaudeville, he was a performer. Eddie came from a multi-generational family of New York cops and because of that background he got a good beat, the theater section of the city. Bad choice for Eddie. He spent more time backstage in the theaters than he did working his beat.

His precinct captain, who was also his father, gave him a choice, stay out of the theaters or hand in his badge. It was an easy choice for Eddie.

He knew of a performer who needed a partner in his act. A few weeks of rehearsal and the two went on the tour. They did a little singing, a little hoofing, and a lot of fooling around, on stage and off. The first few years were good, then vaudeville began it’s decline. The act broke up in Minneapolis. Eddie stayed in town, his partner headed west.

Some of the local hands had an after-hours club and Eddie, big man, ex-cop, got hired as a bouncer. He was well liked by the hands and he began to pick up some work as a stagehand when things were busy in town.

When the after-hours club got raided and shut down, Eddie was given a card in the Local and worked as a full time stagehand.

His old partner, Jack Albertson, landed in Hollywood and got work in the movies where he got an Oscar, and in TV, where he got an Emmy. He became a household name when he landed the role of THE MAN in the hit TV series, CHICO AND THE MAN.

Eddie never bragged about being a partner of Albertson. In fact it was just by chance that the Local hands ever found out who was the other half of Eddie’s act. Albertson was a guest on Johnny Carson’s show. He talked about his vaudeville days and mentioned that his partner was Eddie Ryan, who, the last he heard, was a stagehand in Minneapolis.

I don’t think Eddie ever begrudged his old partner’s success; because Eddie just wasn’t built that way, and he liked his life in Minneapolis. He had a wife and two sons here and many, many friends.

 

Vaudeville at the Orpheum, 1949. Photo from Los Angeles Public Library.

                   

            Another old vaudevillian was Shorty, who became a stagehand through the back door. He started out in his early teens as a bill poster. Bills were an form of advertising. A coming event like a circus or carnival, upcoming Vaudeville acts, and of course VOTE FOR … bills. Shorty had a newspaper sack of bills, a brush, and a bucket of paste. Lampposts, walls, fences, but never ever a US postal box. He got paid by the bill. He had to be fast so he could post on the best locations and also had to watch out that some rival did not paste a bill over his.

            Since his boss worked out of a room in the basement of a theater, Shorty became friends with the stagehands. They gave him occasional work as a gofer. Go for ten pounds of double headed nails at the theatrical hardware story. Go for a bucket of beer at Duffy’s. Not steady work but it helped if bill posting was slack.

            As he got older, and a little bit bigger, they saw to it he got work helping to load-in and load-out big acts. That led to work as an actual stagehand, and eventually working shows.

            ‘Two bits a show,’ Shorty told me. ‘Thought I died and went to heaven.’

            Shorty was one of the stagehands involved in the after- hours club, and he was working there the night it was raided. Shorty says the club was raided because more and more cops wanted protection money until the cost got just too high to pay.

            When he was being brought out to the paddy wagon,a big cop holding each arm, a newspaper photographer took a picture. Made the front page.

            Shorty was so proud of that picture he carried the clipping it in his billfold until if finally fell apart. The caption of the picture proclaimed: LITTLE CAESAR GETS BUSTED IN RAID.

            ‘You’d swear it was Edward G. Robinson,’ he bragged. ‘Put a cigar in my mouth and I could have passed for his twin.’

            After vaudeville died off, Shorty took out a tour of OKLAHOMA. He went out as Head Carpenter, his wife, Marie, as Wardrobe Mistress, and very young Shorty Jr. as a mascot.

            ‘You know,’ he would say as he told the story, ‘Those two guys that wrote that show were the nicest guys! They’d come out and visit. A new big city or a new actor in a role. Nicest guys! Always brought me a jug of whiskey. Snuck it so Marie wouldn’t see. Of course, they always brought her a box of candy and a toy for Shorty Jr.

            ‘Big guy, first name was Oswald?.. Last name was? Jewish. Something stein. And the little guy, about my size, his name was Roger something or the other. Nice guys! Can’t remember their names now.’

            Shorty had a hard time remembering the names of  Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers, but he never forgot the name of Edward G. Robinson.

 

And that’s a wrap for now.

TV IN BLACK AND WHITE

Alex Johnson Hotel

     Alex Johnson Hotel 

            When we left the Guthrie after rehearsals and a week’s run, the next stop on the Leonard Nimoy’s VINCENT tour was Rapid City, South Dakota. Dennis Babcock, the production manager of the tour, had us booked in the historic Hotel Alex Johnson, a beautiful structure in downtown Rapid City.

Alfred Hitchcock had fallen in love with the hotel while filming NORTH BY NORTHWEST and used various locations in it whenever possible. He and some of the cast stars, including Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, also stayed there during the location filming in South Dakota.

Leonard Nimoy’s  VINCENT was the opener for the theater section of the new city entertainment complex. A rodeo had officially opened the arena section the previous week, and had left a lingering odor throughout the complex. Cowboys were a dime a dozen in Rapid City but a real Hollywood star like Leonard was something special. Both the city officials and the hotel management rolled out the red carpet for us. It was perfect, except…

Erik, Leonard’s personal dresser, did not like the idea of having to watch black and white TV, the only kind they had in the hotel. He demanded to talk to the hotel manager. When Dennis and I got back from the setup at the theater, and Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy returned from a media conference, we all had supper in the hotel dining room. Erik informed us that we all had brand new colored TV’s in our rooms.

He told how he explained to the manager that our eyes were accustomed to color TV and watching black and white TV could cause us to have migraines. He went with the manager to two different stores to get just the perfect color TV’s and saw to it that a tech from one of the stores installed and fined tuned the TV’s. Erik was very proud of what he accomplished with his snow job, and when he brought it up again at the airport, none of the other four of us mentioned that we never turned on the TV’s in our rooms.

 

Perry Mason

The Old Hand:

I enjoy watching the black and white reruns of PERRY MASON starring Raymond Burr, now as much as I enjoyed them when they weren’t reruns. And they have closed captioning, something I didn’t need back in the day but sure do now. In some of the episodes though, the cc tech is somewhat of a censor, a very prudish censor, using the x key whenever the tech deemed it is necessary.

            A good example was an episode the other night where the murdered victim’s name was Dick and there was a lot of cocktail drinking. Every time the name ‘Dick’ had to appear on the screen, the censor changed it to xxxx. Every time the word ‘cocktail’ had to appear it was changed to xxxxtail. Pussycat was xxxxycat. Once you realize what is happening, you find yourself watching for other censorship changes instead of trying to figure out who the guilty party is. The tech would have a nervous breakdown if he or she was hired to work on today’s TV shows.

            On of the best things about the series is the relationship between Perry and his secretary, Della Street. It didn’t start out that way in the novels. In the first, The Case of the Velvet Claws, the only one I ever read, Mason is a real sexist pig. He treats Della like she was something he scrapes off his shoes before entering a house.

            SPOILER ALERT: Never hire Perry as a legal consultant because you will end up as the prime suspect in the murder that is sure to follow. The same rule applies to inviting J.B. Fletcher over for dinner, or allowing Dr. Sloan to give you medical attention. And, in watching any of these series, it is best if the viewer has been a member of AARP – for a number of years.

Published St. Paul Pioneer Press, Bulletin Board, 5/13/16

 

Sheen's angel' work

One show I never appreciated at the time, mainly because Mom insisted we watch it, was Life is Worth Living, starring Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his invisible ‘guardian angel’. Basically it was a half hour sermon in prime time.

Bishop Sheen loved to disguise the sermon with humor, and he was good at it. He had a shtick where he would outline a point he was talking about on a large chalk board. Point made, he would  walk downstage so the chalk board was out of camera. When he would come back to the board, it would be clean. He would always thank his angel for the erasure job, and would kid about how his guardian angel not only protects him, it also cleans up after him.

The show was stuck in a graveyard slot, Tuesday night, opposite the “king of television”, Milton Berle, Uncle Milty, who was so popular his network had signed for a 30 year contract. The Mutual Network thought it would be a cheap, (the Bishop worked for nothing), throwaway against the ratings giant. No way would it have the legs to compete against Berle. Wrong!

It rose steadily in the ratings and took a large audience away from Berle. Berle often laughed off the Bishop’s rise by saying they both had the same sponsor, Sky Chief, (Berle was sponsored by Texaco Sky Chief gasoline), and they both used old jokes. Sheen responded that people were calling him, Uncle Fulty. Berle didn’t laugh though when Texaco dropped him and Buick picked him, at a reduced price.

He never regained his title of king of TV and the network was stuck with a long contract. And, sad to say, Bishop Sheen introduced a genre to America, televangelism. The huge difference though is Sheen worked for free, and today’s televangelists work for as much as they can get their followers to send in.

As I started out by saying, I didn’t really appreciate the show until it was off the air and I was working in show business. Then I looked upon it fondly because  Bishop Sheen was the only person I ever heard refer to a stagehand as an angel.

black and white tv

 

 

 

COFFEE WITH ALI

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.

OH, NO, MR. BILL!!!

bill-cosby-quotes-hd-wallpaper-4

Bill Cosby was just breaking out big when I began working as a stage hand. When I retired 45 years later, Cosby was still big, still working a multitude of comedy performances in the US and Canada. Over those 45 years, I easily worked over 100 of Cosby’s comedy performances, and enjoyed every one of them. But now…

The first time I worked Cosby was at Northrop Auditorium at the U of Minnesota. Cosby was hot. His comedy albums were best sellers, and his TV show, I SPY, that he co-starred in with Robert Culp was high in the ratings, as well ground breaking. First time a black actor starred in a dramatic series. First black to win an Emmy.

Working that show taught me two things about Bill Cosby: He was fun to work with. (Years later he changed.) And he was no saint. (Rumors have it, he never changed that aspect of his character.)

One of my student crew members had purchased a large poster of a very serious Culp and a smiling Cosby, standing back to back and holding guns. First chance he got, he asked Cosby to autograph it. Cosby did. But he signed it ‘Bobby Culp’. Like I said, he was fun to work with in those days.

He also asked if there was a doctor that could see him during intermission. Lew, the promoter, found a doctor who gave Cosby a quick once-over. Lew then asked me to send one of the student crew down to the drug store to get a prescription.

According to Lew, the doctor said that Cosby wasn’t wrong when he asked for a doctor. He had a bad case of the drips and needed penicillin. The doctor said Cosby wanted it to be cleared up by the time the tour ended in two weeks, and he had to go home and face his wife. The doctor told him no way would he be healed by then. He suggested that Cosby better think of a believable way to blame on a contaminated toilet seat. Like I said, he was no saint, but a lot of fun to work.

Several years later I was working one of the follow spots for a Cosby performances that was booked by Jerry the Jerk. The Jerk had an uncanny talent of making people hate him at first glance – that way it saved time. And he was always conniving to get the most out of the stagehands for the least amount of money. Two facts not lost on Cosby.

Cosby usually comes in an hour before showtime. Goes on stage. Sits in the easy chair and sees to it that the end table has an ashtray for his cigar. Tests the mike and five minutes later he’s back in his dressing room. Jerry, however, demanded Cosby do his checking at 11 a.m. so if anything wasn’t right with the lights, sound,or camera that projected his face on a picture sheet above his head, it could be done in the 4 hour minimum for the Set Up and not run into a 5th hour.

Instead of telling Jerry no, Cosby came in on time; and then he made sure he didn’t check things out until we had broken the 5th hour. The Jerk was angry and told Cosby so. Cosby told us to take an hour for lunch and come back for a rehearsal. The Jerk was real angry; but there was nothing he could do because the contract said if Cosby wanted to rehearse he would rehearse.

The rehearsal started from the top, house to black low stage lights on, Cosby walked out, the follow spots picked him up, stayed on him when he sat down and went into his routine. He told one of his funny stories in about 5 minutes, then stood up and told us the rehearsal was over. Jerry the Jerk hit the roof. Paid all that money and the rehearsal  lasted less than ten minutes.

He should have kept  his mouth shut. Cos said he was going to think things over and have another rehearsal in an hour. Jerry was fuming and mentioned that could result in a meal penalty if we didn’t get out for supper. Cosby told Jerry to make a list of what each hand wanted for supper and have it delivered. Naturally the meal was on Jerry.

‘You know,’ Cosby told us when we were all in the Green Room eating supper, ‘I got a doctorate in education; but there’s one thing I knew long before I got it, some people never know when to keep their mouths shut.’

Cosby grew up listening to the great comedians on the radio, like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George and Gracie, and he patterned his routines, be they live, or on TV,  after them, relying on family comedy, without any profanity. And it bothered him to see the young comedians building their success on sex and profanity.

The most popular of these young comedians was Eddie Murphy. Cosby was outspoken in his condemnation of the profanity of Murphy’s routine. He said Murphy had too much natural comedic talent to have to resort to cheap laughs by using profanity. Murphy didn’t like Cosby’s advice or Cosby’s type of comedy.

I worked Eddie Murphy during the heat of this feud. A full house at the Met Ice Arena. Murphy worked an hour and a half, no intermission. If he had deleted just the word MFer out of his routine, he would have cut a good fifteen minutes out of the show. He also spent at least fifteen minutes throughout the show condemning Cosby, or as he called him, that senile old MFer.

The audience loved it. Murphy would use his favorite word, MFer, and then scream asking the audience if they were offended. Naturally the audience, thrilled to have a part in the show, would stomp their feet and clap their hands and yell back, ‘NO, you MFer’. This sophomoric display was repeated all the way through the performance.

To paraphrase Erasmus: In the Land of the Morons, the moron holding the mike is king. And as far as I am concerned, more and more morons are purchasing tickets to listen to more and more morons holding mikes.In this case, Cosby was right, even though his words only resulted in him losing the youth as fans.

In 1997, Cosby’s life took a terrible turn for the worse. His oldest son, Ennis, was murdered in, as the killer’s confession called it, ‘a robbery turned bad’. From then on, Cosby became withdrawn. He never kidded with the hands backstage. Spent his free time in his dressing room. But once he got onstage in front of the audience, he reverted back to the old Bill.

In his personal life, he became quite outspoken about the Black community; especially how he perceived the indifference to the pursuit of education. He condemned the trend of the Black families, so many single-parents, and sometimes the parenting had to be carried out by the grandparents with no parents in the picture..He saved his harshest criticism for the Black youths that took the easy way out and dealt drugs to get easy money. He has continued to expound on these themes throughout the years. And as a result he is viewed by a large contingent of the Black community, especially the youth, as a crabby old man – and now as a hypocrite.

Later on in 1997, the Elephant In The Room threatened to become public knowledge. A young girl had tried to extort money out of Cosby by claiming to  be his daughter. She was jailed. In an interview with Dan Rather, Cosby acknowledged it might be true. He confessed to having an affair with the girl’s mother.

For the most part it was overlooked by the American public as being something celebrities do. Maybe though if the public had been aware of the fact Cosby paid the mother $750 per week, hush money, totaling about $100,000 while the girl was growing up, they might have taken it more seriously. And maybe if they had heard that the mother accused Cosby of drugging and raping her their first sexual encounter, they might have been more outraged.

For years, apparently, rumors had circulated about Cosby use of drugs to rape women. When women did come out with the accusations, they were not believed by the police and were not reported in the news. After all, Cosby was ‘America’s Dad’.

I was unaware of these accusations all the years I worked Cosby. I never seen him make any advances on women who were backstage. Always polite. A gentleman. But then, that’s how the 27 or so women, who recently accused him of drug rape, say he was a perfect gentleman until he got them along and spiked their drink.

Do I believe all these accusations? Well, there’s just too much smoke not to have fire. And each passing day it seems like the Elephant is getting bigger, and the Room is getting smaller.

Will it ever be proven one way or the other? Almost any sexual assault is a ‘She Said – He Said’ thing, and the most common defense for the accused is to blame the ‘victim’. Some of the accusers waited so long to speak out; mainly because they saw the ones that did speak out were often accused of lying to extort money from a rich and famous man. When you throw in celebrity status, money, and race into the mix, the waters become really muddy.

Cosby is still doing shows; but these are shows already contracted for, and the promoter fears a lawsuit if he drops Cosby. I can’t imagine a promoter booking a show now.

Cosby is old, real old, heck he’s a year older than me. There comes a point in one’s life where you just get too old to fight. Each performance brings out protesters and audience hecklers. And it will only get worse.

As I said at the top, I learned the first time I worked him, Cosby was no saint; but I never thought he would be accused of sinking this low. ‘America’s Dad’ has become ‘America’s Bad’. Oh, Bill!

I KNOW NOTHING

-Schultz-hogans-heroes-

On Memorial day weekend I read an angry letter posted on the web. The writer, a young (?) Politically Correct activist was railing out against the fact the old TV comedy, HOGAN’S HEROES, was still being shown on cable TV. She felt it was a great disservice to all those who were POW’s of the Germans in WWII. She wanted the series to be hidden away like the old AMOS & ANDY SHOW. In a way I could see her point; but… (It was the first TV show where Black actors had main roles along with the White actors.)

Two of my favorite coworkers at the Guthrie Theatre spent a large part of WWII as prisoners of war in German camps. Chuck Wallen, an American, was a stagehand and set carpenter at the Guthrie. Michael Langham, an Englishman, was the Artistic Director of the theatre. They were in different camps but they both had similar experiences during their years as prisoners.

Chuck, an Air Corps navigator, was on his first bombing run when the plane was shot down. He parachuted out, landed in a cow pasture and broke his back. A village doctor set Chuck’s back as best he could, but the setting would have left Chuck unable to ever stand straight again. A German doctor, seeing the problem, fought red tape and got Chuck to a hospital where the doctor rebroke the back and set it correctly. Chuck spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany, but at least he could stand straight.

Growing up, Michael Langham’s hero was the Duke of Wellington. Because of this, Michael  went to Officers’ Training where he received an officer’s commission just in time to take part in the final days of the Battle of Dunkirk, namely the retreat to the beach. When the Miracle of Dunkirk was accomplished, Michael was not one of the lucky ones that were transported back to England. He was in the group that missed the boats and were captured by the Germans and placed in a POW camp, where he spent the duration of the war that he really never got to know first hand.

It was the camp where the Great Escape took place, although the tunnel was in a different barracks and Michael was not involved or even aware of what was going on. To kill time in the camp, Michael joined the theatrical group. Sometimes Michael acted, sometimes Michael directed. By the time the camp was liberated, Michael no longer thought of himself as the next Duke of Wellington. Instead, he pursued a career in the theatre, substituting Tyrone Guthrie for the Duke of Wellington as a role model.

It was the years of HOGAN’S HEROES in prime time. The day after each new episode aired, Michael would make his way down to the shop where he and Chuck would spend about a half hour or so going over the episode, laughing and comparing characters on both sides of camp to people in their camps. Since I was working the show the nights the series aired I never got to see it until years later in reruns. Sometimes though when I was working during a day when Chuck and Michael got together, I was privileged to listen to those two reminisce. So, now when I find myself laughing at the antics of Hogan and the gang, I don’t feel any guilt. After all, two members of the Greatest Generation, who had first hand experience in POW camps laughed at the same things many years ago.

On the other hand, another favorite acquaintance, Jim Daly, who survived the Bataan Death March and the ensuing years in a POW camp in the Philippines, would not have found anything funny during his hell on earth.

  

We doing a week of VINCENT in Scottsdale, Arizona about nine months after Bob Crane, Hogan of HOGAN’S HEROES, was murdered in this posh city of many rich retirees. Mr. ‘Just Call Me Bob’ Herberger, founder of the Herberger department store chain put on a big fete for us at his house. He had enjoyed the play and especially liked the fact that it came from the Guthrie in his home state of Minnesota. I think he spent more time talking with another Minnesota native, namely me, as he did hobnobbing with Leonard Nimoy, the star of VINCENT. It was a fun time with only one slight bump in the road.

Almost all of Mr. Herberger’s invitees were, like him, enjoying their retirement in the land of the sun. There wasn’t a Ford or a Chevy mixed in with the Rolls and Caddies, and although the it was Arizona casual dress, it wasn’t the casual dress wear that came off the rack at a Herberger Department Store.

There was one group of men that seemed to hang together. They looked like they could have been extras in THE GODFATHER. Maybe one of them brought the cannoli to the party. A couple of them were more interested in talking to Leonard about Dr. (sic) Spock than about Van Gogh, something that always irritated Leonard; but he remained a gentleman and answered their questions about Spock and STAR TREK as the old timers wanted.

Then Leonard asked them a question. ‘You know, Bob Crane and I use to be friends back in the days we were auditioning for jobs, and then when we both were in hit shows. Hadn’t seen him years though. Now,’ Leonard said in a quiet voice, ‘What’s the real skinny on Crane’s murder?’

You don’t yell fire in a theater, and you don’t ask these old men about murder. Their silence was deafening. They didn’t have to talk. They just gave Nimoy  – the look. Finally one of them spoke up in a raspy whisper. ‘Don’t ask about that guy again around here. You don’t want to know! Understand?’ Leonard nodded and the subject was dropped. He smiled at the group of men and walked over to where Mr. Herberger was talking to me.

In the words of Sergeant Schultz, ‘I know nothing.

I REMEMBER MICKEY

Young Mickey      THE MICK 

Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!

          Mickey Rooney’s mantra. His first time in the spotlight was at the age of seven months, when crawled onstage during his parents’ vaudeville act and sneezed. For the next nine decades he continued to put on a show.

          Very few people, that I worked with over the years, took such complete joy in their work as Mickey did. And his joy was infectious, not only to the audience, but to everyone who had the good fortune of working with him. On three separate one-week engagements, two weeks of SUGAR BABIES, one week of THE WIZARD OF OZ, I had this good fortune. What a pro! What a warm, kind, friendly man!  And working with him was like shaking hands with history. Consider just a little of his career:

          VAUDEVILLE: Joined his parents’ act at age 15 months, singing, dressed in a tux, and sporting a rubber cigar. He was the last living, big time star that had made their start in vaudeville.

          SILENT MOVIES: He started acting in silent films at age 5. At age 7,he had his own series, MICKEY MCGUIRE. He played Mickey in 78 shorts, 23 of which were silent films. Although there are still a few people living who were in silent films, like Dickie Moore of Our Gang shorts, none were stars of their own series nor became a star of Rooney’s magnitude.

          GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD: He was one of the biggest stars in MGM’s studio, home of the greatest stars in the era. The year 1939 has been acknowledged as the greatest year for movies, with such features as GONE WITH THE WIND and WIZARD OF OZ, and that year the biggest box office draw was Mickey Rooney. He followed up the honor in 1940 and 41. His two series at the time, ANDY HARDY and the Garland/Rooney musicals were, not only MGM’ s most popular features, they were also the most profitable. Of the stars of the MGM studio those years, Mickey outlived all of them except for Olivia de Havilland.

          THE GREATEST GENERATION: Mickey tried to enlist right after Pearl Harbor, but was turned down. Later, he was drafted. Served 21 months entertaining the troops. He was awarded the Bronze Star for entertaining in combat zones.

          FILM CAREER:  Prior to the MGM years, he worked in many films for various studios, like Warner Brothers, where he played Puck in A MIDSUMMER’S DREAM. He was 15 at the time and had a broken leg. After his military service, his physical stature worked against him. He he continued to work in the movies, but never reached the superstar status he had as a teenager. While his nominations were many, the only Oscars he received was a ‘Juvenile Award’ and a Life Time Achievement Award. Both Lawrence Olivier and Marlon Brando called him the greatest film actor. He is the only person who made at least one film in ten consecutive decades.

          RADIO: One of the busiest voices during Radio’s Golden Age. In addition to appearing in the great radio shows of the day, he headlined in three series.

          TELEVISION: He has countless credits on TV, including many starring roles during the Golden Age of TV. He headlined in 4 different series. He won an Emmy for BILL in 1981.

          STAGE: His stage work ran the gamut from Shakespeare to the revival of burlesque. His Broadway appearances were in SUGAR BABIES and WILL ROGER’S FOLLIES. After 1,208 performances of SUGAR BABIES in New York, he and Ann Miller, his co-star, spent five years touring it. They brought it to Minneapolis twice. He toured in many other stage productions including THE WIZARD OF OZ with Eartha Kitt, which spent a week in Minneapolis.

          HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME: He has 4 stars, Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, and Live Theater.

          He worked extensively doing voice-overs in animated films. He recorded music albums, cast albums, singles, and spoken word. It was said that he never found a musical instrument he couldn’t play. He wrote books, directed and produced films, and his last ‘big show’ was speaking out about elderly abuse before a Senate committee.

And in amongst all that work, he managed to marry 8 different women. “I had a  license made out ‘to whom it may concern’. I always got married in the morning, that way if it didn’t work out, it didn’t ruin the whole day. Took me eight times before I got it right,” he said. Joking aside, his last marriage lasted over 30 years.

 sugar babesANN MILLER – ANN JILLIAN – AND ?

          He had a rider that called for cable TV in his dressing room. Why I don’t know. He spent very little time in his dressing room. When he wasn’t on stage, he was usually offstage talking to people.

          He’d see a new face and he would stick out his hand. ‘I’m Mickey, and you are?’ The second time through with SUGAR BABIES, he said to me, ‘I forget the name but I remember the hat.’

          ‘Don,’ I told him, which opened the door for one of his improv skits.

           ‘That your name or the hat’s? You know all the stagehands use to wear a hat. Now there’s just you and maybe that prop man in Peoria. Course he’s probably long gone by now.

          ‘And women! They always wore hats. Feathers and fruits.” In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it”.’ Then he  broke into a little dance. ‘I taught Astaire these steps. Adele, not Fred.’

          Mickey was never above telling a joke, no matter how corny or how old. Once he came off stage after doing the skit LITTLE RED SCHOOLHOUSE to thunderous applause. He cupped his hand to his ear listening to the cheers from the audience. ‘And they said I was a has-been. But just think where I has been.’

          Once I was in a wing waiting to do a cue, when Mickey started telling me about how a bellboy led him to find religion. ‘Changed my life. Now Mickey Jr. really got born-again. Has his own church. Wants me to go there and preach a ser..

         Just then the chorus girls came off stage. One ran out through the wing where Mickey and I were. Mickey reached out and pinched her behind. She jumped and gave a little squeal. Mickey laughed. ‘She’s new. You don’t see the other girls get that close to me,’ he laughed.

          Somehow I couldn’t picture Mickey as a preacher man.

          Another time he came up to me just as I finished a cue. It was a Goodbye Sunday, two shows and an Out. Between shows I stocked up on protein with a big steak. He asked what I had for dinner. I told him steak and he said he would have bet that would be my answer. Then this little guy, about a foot shorter than me, looked up at me and began to tell me how it wasn’t good for me to eat red meat.

          It was funny at the time; but hey, he lived to be 93.

          One of the hands asked him about his Bronze Star. He smiled and shook his head. ‘What an honor! They gave me some other awards like the WWII Victory medal and they even gave me a Good Conduct Medal. Kept me awake at night wondering when they would come to their senses and take the Good Conduct Medal back.’

          As carefree as Mickey was, his co-star, Ann Miller. was the polar opposite. Very serious. Appeared backstage only when she had to. Spent the rest of the time in her dressing room. She was close to 60 but neither her face nor her figure betrayed her age. She looked younger than many of the girls in the chorus line. In addition to her years on stage and in films, she was famous for two other things. One, she popularized pantyhose, and two, she was billed as the world’s fastest tap dancer. And she hadn’t slowed down, even a tap.

          When the show was being loaded in, Joe, the road prop man, immediately began to lay the plywood dance floor. It was a work of perfection. He selected only the best panels for the center, using the less than perfect panels on the outside. He used his whiskey stick, (level), and shims to assure was as flat as could be. He used a portable sander to removed any bumps, which only he could see. And then Ann came in.

          ‘Are you ready for me, Joseph?’ she would ask. And then she would walk and dance on the floor, stopping every so often and pointing down. Joe would take a piece of chalk and later would sand down the bump that even he couldn’t see, Ann had felt it through her dance shoes. Joe used the sander and Ann would try again. She checked out the floor before each show, always finding a little something that had to be sanded down.

          Between Ann in her tap shoes and Mickey in his baggy pants, the show was a real winner. It disbanded and for a while a bus and truck version toured, stopping for a week in Minneapolis.  It had Jaye P. Morgan and Eddie Bracken. Jaye P. was funny and had a good voice. Eddie Bracken, whose latest claim to fame had been as Roy Wally, owner of Wally World, the Griswalds’ favorite amusement park, was capable but… Mickey had been an aggressive comic, in the manner of Phil Silvers, who had been a top banana both in burlesque and in the movie, TOP BANANA. Bracken was a passive comic, relying more on reaction than action. The tour was short lived.

          Luckily, a few years later, SUGAR BABIES came back to town as a national tour with both Mickey and Ann reprising their routines. And of course with Joe, or Joseph as Ann called him, as the dance floor layer extraordinaire.

          The third time Mickey came through was as the Wizard in the stage version of WIZARD OF OZ. His co-star, playing the Wicket Witch of the West, was another of my favorites, Miss Eartha Kitt.

          Mickey was Mickey –  warm, friendly and funny. He enjoyed playing the role made so famous by Frank Morgan. The audiences loved it and it was fun to work.

          Mickey and the stage manager had a little skit prior to the start of each show. The stage manager would caution Mickey about talking too loud backstage and Mickey would jump behind a masking leg, peek around the end, and shake the cloth. ‘Paaaay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’ he would say. Funny bit!  I don’t think we could have done the show without it.

          And he brought back a lot of his backstage routines. One of my favorites was him telling about losing money on the horses. ‘First time I bet on a horse, I lost two bucks. Been spending the rest of my life trying to win it back.

          ‘But you know what nag cost me the most money?  Santa Claus! Norman Lear wanted me to play Archie Bunker. I turned him down to do the voice of Santa Claus – in a cartoon. Lear told me Archie Bunker was a rough, bigoted-blow hard. Never work, I told him. Doesn’t sound funny and people just won’t buy it. I took what I thought was a sure thing and did the Santa Claus. Didn’t want to take a chance playing an old racist. What’d I know? What’d I know?’

          This coming from a man who created the only speed bump in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, namely the role of the bucktooth Asian landlord, Mr. Yonioshi . Both the critics and the general public hated the portrayal, calling it both racist and unfunny. Mickey took a lot of heat on that one. But what’d he know? What’d he know?

          And while Mickey was his usual outgoing self, Eartha Kitt was quiet and introspective. Quite unlike the Eartha that had come to town years before in TIMBUKTU. Then she was funny, talkative, and of course, very sexy. There  had been a cue I had to do standing in the wing that Eartha used to go on stage. Each time she passed by me, she rubbed my stomach and gave out a sexy purr as only Eartha could do.

          During WIZARD, I was reading a paperback written by Loren Estleman. In it, his protagonist, P.I. Amos Walker says he is going home, open up a bottle of whiskey and listen to his Eartha Kitt albums. His idea of heaven. I marked the passage and gave it to the stage manager to show Eartha. Eartha came out of her dressing room and smiled, handing me back the book asking where she could get a copy. ‘You keep this one. I finished it,’ I lied. Later, Mickey came up to me and thanked me for ‘being so nice to Eartha’. Mickey cared about people.

          That week was the last time I was privileged to work with either Eartha. or Mickey .

          I’ll always remember how serious and silent Mickey was, almost as if he was standing at attention, whenever the girl playing Dorothy was singing SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW. And his silence thundered backstage. One could almost hear him thinking back to a different time when a different actress was playing Dorothy and singing that song. The Golden Days.

          OZ came back a few years later with a very forgettable actor playing the Wizard and Grace Jones replacing Eartha. The only thing I really remember about that production was how small Grace Jones was in real life. In all her roles in action movies, she always appeared to be a tall no-holds-barred woman. Of course, when I met her co-star in Conan, Mr. Schwarzenegger I was shocked at how short he was also.

          It’s a wonder what camera angles, shoe lifts, and apple boxes can do to make a person look taller. Some things that Mickey Rooney never had to  use. He always stood tall, both as a talent, (Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!), and as a human being, (He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.).

          Good bye, Mickey. It’s been an honor to know you.rip Mickey

 

 

           

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

TV WAS YOUNG, AND SO WAS I

                  The three youngest granddaughters were sitting at the kitchen table, creating artistic pictures, suitable for hanging on the refrigerator. The TV was on, largely ignored by them until it was time to shout out the correct word in Spanish to Dora. This they accomplished without bothering to look up from their drawings.

               “You know,” I said, “I didn’t have TV when I was your age.”

               I must have been repeating myself from another time, because the oldest said, “We know. You had to listen to the radio.”

               “And you didn’t get to watch TV until you were old, old, old,” the middle one added.

               “Then you watched Dora the Explorer,” the youngest chimed in.

               “Scooby Doo!” argued the middle one.

               “No, Dora!” said the youngest, raising her voice and looking up from her drawing to argue with her sister, about the merits of Dora versus those of Scooby Doo. The oldest continued with her art work. She couldn’t be bothered with that childish argument. After all she is in kindergarten.

         

               And while that debate was going on and on, I thought that maybe a similar debate had been conducted by my sister and younger brothers over Kuckla, Fran, and Ollie, versus Howdy Doody. When we first got TV, these programs were for little kids, not a 5th grader like me.

          I don’t know if I dream in color, but I found myself day- dreaming in black and white.

When TV was young – And so was I

                 

When TV’s first hit the market, small rounded screens in enormous cabinets. There was no box involved in purchasing one. The TV’s were on shelves and all of them were turned on. You picked out the one with the best picture. Dealers allowed potential customers to actually take a set home for two weeks for a trial run.

There was one family down the road that used these trial runs to the nth degree. I bet they went over a year getting TVs on trial runs before the various dealers finally caught on to the fact that as long as this family could watch TV without actually buying one, it would always be a no-sale. I went their house every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:30 to watch the Lone Ranger. And sometimes on Fridays at 8:00 to watch All Star Wrestling with stars like Gorgeous George and King Kong Kashey. And later on, Da Crusher.

And TV repair shops opened up all over. Some time taking over a vacated store. Some time being incorporated with an existing business like shoe repairing. Occasionally a person could actually find an honest repairman that actually knew what he was doing. Most of them, though, had taken the correspondent course that was advertised in comic books on the same page that sold sea monkeys. There was also ads in comic books that sold a kit to bring color to a black and white screen. A kit consisted of a tin frame that held a sheet of photographic filter. Depending on which sheet you used, the black would have either a red or blue tint.

The first accessory, after the rabbit-eared antenna, that you had to purchase, when you got a TV, was a roll of aluminum foil. You made two flags and attached them to the rods of the rabbit-eared antenna. You still had to turn the antenna when you switched to a different channel, but the picture came in a lot clearer, for a while.

Today’s TV’s usually has one person in charge of the remote. Old TV’s had one person that sat close to the set and was in charge of rotating the antenna and playing with the horizontal and vertical dials to keep the picture steady. To get it settle down required the light touch of a safe cracker. For some reason, the TV’s almost never acted up during the commercials, but always during the most exciting part of the show, like the gun showdown on the main street or when the rassler wearing the long black trunks had the chair taken away from him by the crowd favorite in the short white trunks.

The old TV’s never liked thunderstorms and Ford cars. We could always tell when there was storm approaching well before we saw any lighting or heard any thunder. The picture was next to impossible to get to settle down. And we could always tell when a Ford drove down the road past the house. Not only did a Ford cause the picture to act up, it also caused the sound to turn into a static machine. It never happened when a Chevy or DeSoto or any other make went past, just a Ford.

But while the old TV’s caused problems in getting a good picture, there was no problems in finding something worthwhile to watch. The Golden Age of Television was shown in black and white, even though it was broadcasted live and you had to accept the fact that maybe a set door wouldn’t open, an actor forgot his lines, or a stagehand was seen in the picture.

And, unlike TV shows today, the actual context of the show itself was greater than the sum minutes of the commercials. Or when you fell asleep watching TV, you were never rudely awaken by the blaring of a commercial. The picture might jump and roll, but the sound was the same level, shows and commercials.

Sometimes the commercials were as funny as the shows. They were always live and anything could happen. The most popular newscaster in the Twin Cities had to do the commercials for the show’s sponsor, Ford. One night, when he came on, it was apparent he had had a liquid supper. He was slurring his words and having a hard time reading from the script he has in his hands, no cue cards or teleprompters in those days. The commercial required him to walk around the car that was in the studio. He opened the doors and talked about the features. He opened the trunk to show how roomy it was. He closed the trunk. It bounced open again. He closed the trunk. It bounced open again. He kept try to close the truck slamming it harder and harder. He tried using words that were not suppose to be used on TV. This whole fiasco went on and on. Finally, there was a blackout and when the lights came back on, somebody else was reading the rest of the news. We never did see the most popular newscaster in the towns anymore. A few years later there was a short item in the paper that he was reading the news in a small town in Montana.

The queen of the national commercials was Betty Furness speaking for GE products. The audience liked her because she seemed real, like she actually used the appliances she touted. And the sponsor like her because she never lost her cool or chain of thought when a refrigerator door wouldn’t close.

The broadcasting schedule was much shorter than the 24 hours of today. Very early TV started as late as 6 PM, went off the air at 10 PM. Gradually it started sooner and was on later. Prior to the station’s start, there was a test pattern that ran for several hours. The test picture was the same for all the stations, graphs and lines that meant nothing to anybody except the studio techs, and on the top was an Indian in full war bonnet.(Of course, there wasn’t many stations to choose from, one for a while, than another and another.) They always signed off by playing the national anthem with a video of the flag blowing in the breeze. This was followed the bug races, a screen of dots flicking on the screen.

In a way it changed the way people lived. With radio, listeners could pursue other things at the same time, do house work, homework, and of course, milk cows. TV changed that. People had to be in the same room as the TV, and pay attention with the eyes as well as the ears.

      Of course, if , like my granddaughters, you’ve already seen that particular episode, maybe several times, you can still,do more important things like pursuing your art projects, while  following what’s on the humongous set in HDTV.